Small Wars Journal

On Megacities

This comment responds to the SWJ publication of  “A Proposed Framework for Appreciating Megacities: A US Army Perspective.”   I applaud the Strategic Studies Group for choosing the topic, and found the paper refreshing and significant.  I noted some years ago a tendency in our war-gaming to simply pretend that these huge conurbations did not exist, so troubling were the geographic challenges they presented.  That the Chief of Staff has thrown that strategic method out in favor of the Myamoto Musashi approach is great progress.  We are going to have to fight in urban areas, so let’s figure it out.  I found the concluding sentence of the abstract especially encouraging:  “Making individual megacities (vice a generic megacity) the unit of analysis will lead to better DOTMLPF…and  provide better options for the conduct of successful operations.  With that in mind, I notice that Dhaka and Lagos seem to get pinged for special attention.  The SWJ article appeared in my inbox only days after Dr. Charles Ehlschlaeger’s anthology from the Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) and U.S. Army Engineer Research Development Center (ERDC), “Understanding Megacities with the Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Intelligence Paradigm.”  The two (The Strategic Studies Group article and the ERDC White Paper) don’t seem aware of each other, or at least do cite each other or share references.  They share ‘mega’ and, interestingly, the ERDC also pings Dhaka and Lagos.  It seems like somebody somewhere has it in for those two places.

There are a few points I would like to bring to the attention of the group of authors for their consideration.  One comes from a word search of the Strategic Studies Group document.  The terms ‘built-environment’ and ‘land-use planning’ cannot be found in it.  This is probably no big thing, but it might bespeak a gap in references or a failure to engage, and it might present an opportunity.  The conversation in academe and the vocation of urban management has had these two terms near their core for some decades.  The group’s paper seems unimpressed by that conversation.  It just seems odd to me that in the group’s consideration of sources, something wouldn’t tend to compel use of (or at least a nod to, since the paper is about an analytical framework) the common urban studies terms.  Another thing, and this is perhaps even more picayune, is an appearance that maybe the “megacities” notion is some sort of current think-tank shiny object.  I see that the subject is megacities not cities, and the paper clearly expresses the idea that a megacity is something apart and different than the mere huge city or, say, a peripheral non-primate burb of just three million.  OK, but (keeping in mind that most megacities are places where the United States military is just not going to go, and that the number of megacities where we might in fact go is maybe not enough to occupy all the digits on one hand) the current fascination with ‘mega’ might be detouring intellectual resources from the geographies that count -- these latter probably being a number of cities that are mid to large in size – like the Fallujah-size to Bagdad-size that the group mentions in passing.

Which brings us to a central offering of the article, the analytical framework the group summarizes as ‘context, scale, density, connectedness, and flow.’  That is thought-provoking and perhaps a valuable tool for understanding, but I doubt it is sustainable as a guide for organizing and operating.  I think, for instance, that prompts like ‘distances,’ ‘ownership,’ ‘energy,’ ‘convocation,’ ‘collective identity,’ and ‘waste management,’ and a few others might be better categories of analysis, but that’ s just me.  Regardless -- good read, congratulations Strategic Study Group.

P.S.  From the BBC we get, “The population of Stalingrad - now Volgograd - fell from 850,000 to just 1,500 at the end of the war.”  So I guess what armies do in a city can have an effect.  BBC, “1943: Germans surrender at Stalingrad,”

Comments

mikebailey42

Wed, 06/11/2014 - 3:56pm

One of the most exciting parts of our work on megacities has been participating in the excellent discussion that followed publication of the article. It has been robust! Sir, your insights are excellent and we are glad that you took the time to consider our work so carefully. I’d like to follow up on a few of the main points.

I would offer that to some extent the “mega” element of our megacities analysis is a forcing function to get people to think differently about the problem. There is nothing magic about the number 10 million, and our intent is certainly not to diminish the importance of cities of 8 million or even 3 million. The "mega"city discussion forces consideration of the problem outside of our current models. When you’re thinking about a city of, say 20+ million, one is forced to think about it differently because we just don’t have enough soldiers to do certain things according to current constructs. In other words we can’t solve the problem with mass and blunt force, so we need something new. I believe that when we begin to think about the problem differently and develop new ways of taking on the challenges of megacities we may be able to learn some things about how to deal with smaller cities. Maybe, maybe not. Only the research will bear that out, but we believe that the research is absolutely warranted, and critical to avoid the strategic surprise that may emanate from megacities. Are we going to do something major in a megacity any time soon? I doubt it, and I hope not, but that doesn't mean we can afford to not think deeply about the issue.

I also very much appreciate your comment about the opportunity in engaging with academia. After the publication of this piece, when we did field work domestically and internationally, and we did engage with universities and it was extremely enlightening. In fact we’re still grappling with how to incorporate the vast amounts of ongoing work on urbanization into a discussion of the security environment. This will be a hugely important element of any work that hopes to truly understand the effects of urbanization on future land operations.

Finally, your discussion of our framework is excellent! Our elements were meant to serve as a starting point and we fully acknowledge that over time they will evolve, as they should. Our going-in position was that any set of characteristics ought to force the military mind to look at the problem holistically instead of reductively. The flows, scale, density, etc. help strategic planners to think about the whole city and develop capabilities accordingly, as opposed to analyzing component parts separately like operational (PMESII-PT) or mission specific (METT-TC) frameworks tend to do.